Imagine this: Night Terrors.
I was eleven. I dreaded the night time and so a visceral and physical something thickened in my belly and chest as evening approached. I was sent to bed, and even before I crawled into bed, I knew whether it would come tonight or not. Sometimes the feeling was not there, but when it came, I knew with certainty that sleep would bring to my dream world things not easily spoken of: night terrors.
I was having them with greater frequency, and this terror had become a rather constant drum beat of my young prayer life. God save me. I tried to explain the terrors to my parents, but it all came out rather jumbled, and the visions didn’t sound as terrifying to my parents, or to me, for that matter. I knew that my descriptions had not done them justice.
And then that thick feeling of doom descended on me at dinner, and I knew that tonight I would dream again. This was my dream: I am at the edge of a twenty story high rise. I fall over the edge and plummet to the ground. I feel the wind and the rise of my stomach into my throat and, finally, I feel my skin and then my bones and bodily organs hit the immovable pavement…but I do not die. I only agonize in pain, unable to even writhe or check my kidneys because I am broken and mashed all over.
The fall has not awakened me. I am still in the terror and I can feel the earth tremble as though an enormous beast gallops my direction. I open my eyes and see a machine with a rolling pin on its front— like the machines used to crush and level asphalt roads—and it is rolling in my direction. It moves with inevitability and the earth rattles my crushed form. I try to scream, but my lungs are crushed. I cannot breathe. I reach out my hand to stop the machine, but my hands will not budge, and then it is rolling over me; first, my feet, then my knee caps, and it moves toward my head.
This is the point at which I woke up. At least, my reason told me I was awake, but my imagination painted a different picture, told a different story. My imagination, and my physical body as a result, told me that the catastrophe really just happened. I was convinced that it happened. I checked my feet. They could move.
Every night it was the same: night terrors became a regular and unwelcome bed fellow. After one night terror, I needed to use the restroom and this was evidence that my bladder worked: some good news. This is how I remember things: I am standing in the bathroom, staring at the mirror, adjusting my world—body and imagination—to “reality.” The terror slowly subsides and I move to use the toilet when, quite unexpectedly, the machine comes through the bathroom wall. It moves slowly, but it is huge, and there is nowhere to run.
If my parents remember this event in my life, they will tell you that they found me huddled in the corner of the bathroom by the toilet, weeping uncontrollably. They will tell you that they spent many minutes—how many, I cannot tell—trying to persuade me that there was no machine, that I was only dreaming, and that I was safe. My imagination had fully accepted a new reality and placed me in an unmerciful story of anguish. It was my imagination, that synthesizing and unifying function of the mind, that needed convincing, and so my parents had to open my eyes and give me new images to overcome the old ones: no broken wall, no machine, no high rise buildings.
Dad helped me use the restroom and lead me to bed where I worked overtime to believe what my parents had told me. I am sure that sleep eventually found me because I was in a terror again and facing a new twist this time. This time, I am in my room upon my bed and I know, somehow, that my sister and brother are in grave peril. I know without a doubt that they will die horrible deaths, and I also know that the only way to save them and to save the rest of my extended family is for me to do the unimaginable and eat them.
I am in a catch-22 that I cannot explain, but that I know exists, and I know the only way out is to perform what I cannot perform. I also know, without a doubt, that my siblings are hanging, imprisoned, in ropes attached to the ceiling above my bed.
No rolling machine this time, my lungs have enough oxygen to scream for help, but I know that doom will fall upon them if I scream. I also know that whoever has placed me in this impossible dilemma will come any moment and I will be out of time. There is no exit strategy, no door of escape, so I can only weep. Sobs wrack my body and my imagination begins to buckle under the strain of this unbearable thickness. I weep and weep and weep until my father, hearing the sobs, comes in and sits down next to me. He holds me in his arms until I am awake. Again, my reason is awake, but the story in my imagination, the worldview which now swallows up all others, is still quite relevant and active, so I will not look up. My father and mother probe for reasons, but I cannot give them a reason. I know, even though half asleep, that it will sound ridiculous when it comes out of my mouth, and I cannot afford to so mislead him. My poor parents have spent all night consoling me and reasoning against unbridled panic. I explain the situation to them in whispers. My face is still burrowed into the pillow.
“Nobody is making you eat your brother and sister,” Dad says. Oh, how naïve he sounds to me. I remain burrowed. “Look at the ceiling, son.”
I shake my head, ever so slightly.
“They’re not up there.”
He quietly prays by my side for a few moments. I begin to sob again.
“Tell me why someone would make you eat them?” he asks.
I cannot tell him. I know that, but I also know that he is fighting the fire of the imagination with propositions—logic will not fly.
My brother and sister are standing next to the bed. My weeping has woken them. I know this in my mind, but my imagination is locked upon one particular story. I am even more terrified than before.
“Look up, son.”
I will not. He moves my body and head and I resist.
He is stronger than I am, but the fright grows, and even as he forcibly moves my face, I weep uncontrollably and squeeze my eyes closed.
Dad’s hands cup my face and point me upward. “Open your eyes, son!”
“Open them! Nobody’s on the ceiling.”
Still, I won’t.
“Your brother and sister are right here by your side.”
Yes, but the fear is also here. It broods over every breath I take.
“Son, you need to believe me.”
Belief is hard right now.
This is something, at least.
I open one eye. That is the beginning of a reawakening from terror. My father leads me from bed to bed and makes me look upon their empty beds and then he makes me look into their bewildered and sleepy faces. The fright subsides, and so I collapse in a heap of emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. Dad carries me to bed and tucks me in.
How did my father combat such a wild imagination? He started by making appeals to reason, but he did not settle for logical defense alone; instead, he replaced one image with another image. He replaced the false image with the true one. Dreams are sometimes a picture of our entire lives. Some of us have survived the terrifying. Some are still not out of the metaphorical woods. The outcome is very much in doubt. For many people, life is a kind of prison camp, a brutal existence where pain is the common denominator. The imagination takes all these events we would rather forget and synthesizes them, integrating them, and finding correspondences. We need the Truth, biblical doctrine, to point the mind’s eye toward God, as he actually is. Our faces, our imaginations, our hearts and minds, are cradled in God’s hands and he calls to us. The night is pitch dark, but he has given us a torch by which to see the path: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
The imagination needs a guide. It needs a touchstone; namely the Scriptures. God has given us an imagination so that we might look for him and find him. He has set our souls on pilgrimage and surrounded us with signs, pictures, that point back to him.